So there are jerks, average citizens, and really good fellas. Where do you fall in this spectrum? I often find myself pondering over this question, as I find it interesting to observe from the outside the way I behave every time I have a choice between being a jerk or a good guy, and to dissect my own feelings post-mortem. One vivid example can be given from a recent trip of mine. I write a recollection of the facts here only after having appraised at less than one in 100,000 the chance that the unnamed victim of my actions actually reads these lines, as I fear he could retaliate somehow, if he found out his misfortune was willingly caused by me. Anyway, here is the story.
I arrived at the departure airport shortly after noon, well in advance with respect to my flight. There was no queue at the security controls, and the people around seemed relaxed. As I got access to the conveyor belt I started to dump my belongings to a couple of those large trays they provide for laptops, jackets, and other stuff you need to send to the x-ray imager before walking through the metal detector.
There was a guy in his 50ies who had gotten there before me, and was doing the same thing on my left; I will call him Joe in the following. When Joe placed a tray on the belt and I did the same on his right, the two trays were automatically transported toward the scanner on the left, before stopping as other stuff was being checked.
Joe needed a second tray for his belongings, and he moved to the position on my right to fetch it and fill it. At that point he seemed anxious to ensure that his stuff would get to the x-ray machine before mine, so he decided to grab my first tray and push it back to the right, inserting his second tray before it. All the while, Joe acted as if I did not exist, and I did not hear a word from him, not even an impersonal "sorry" to excuse the only very slightly impolite act he had committed.
I was in a good mood, so I did not react. Had I been in a hurry, I would have probably protested, although there was really little to argue about - the stuff would get to the other end of the x-ray machine in no time anyway. So all I did was to raise a gram of eyebrows as I exchanged a glance with the security guard on the other side of the belt, who had also noticed Joe's slightly odd manouver.
I was then ready to forget the matter, as I found myself on the other side of the metal detector and I started to collect my stuff from the first tray after the x-ray machine. And then opportunity stroke: Joe was also collecting his belonging from his tray, again to my left, and I noticed at the corner of my field of vision that he had temporarily left his passport on it as he busied himself with the other items. I had just emptied my first tray at that point, and it took me half a second to decide what to do.
With a perfectly non-chalant move, without even looking, I smoothly slid my empty tray on top of his, sandwiching his passport between the pair; all the while I kept working at collecting the stuff that remained on my second tray. Arguably, I could have done this unaware of the lower tray not being completely empty yet, so who could blame me? Now, as the trays are meant to be easily stackable, the passport was not in sight any longer. As Joe finished his other business, he found himself facing an empty tray. He looked slightly puzzled, and then increasingly worried. As I overtook him and moved away toward the exit he was frantically triple-checking all his pockets and luggage in search of his passport. In the meantime the guard put the two trays on the feeder belt and sent them back, to be reused by other customers.
I do not know how the story ended with Joe's passport, but I am almost sure he finally retrieved it, as barring a theft there was no other possible explanation for where the missing item could be. So I guess I inflicted Joe just a little bit of pain and a 5-minute delay on his schedule, no big deal. But to me the interesting question is: why did I do it, and how do I feel about it?
First of all, I do not (I did not) care about Joe, his fortune or bad luck, his future or anything: what will happen to him is none of my business. In general, I wish him a happy life. It takes much, much more than his very slight impoliteness to really piss me off at the level of wishing somebody a punishment of sorts.
More interestingly, during that half second, as I kept my empty tray in the air before I landed it over his passport, I think a lot happened in my brain. I had to appraise risks - the chance that he would catch my manouver in the making and consider it an act of belligerence - as well as the possible reward. As for the latter, it was never "let's get even with Joe", as strange as it seems: rather, the reward I appraised during that split second came in the form of having a chance to observe myself doing something bad and getting away with it. Of course, I would never have done it to a regular Joe: it only made sense to do it as Joe had been impolite in the first place; but the point was not to punish Joe, as much as to exploit a chance to test my feelings as I took a walk on the bad side.
What have I learned from that incident at the airport security controls? I think I am a bit disappointed to realize I feel no sense of guilt. I guess I would have liked to be remorseful for my action, on the grounds that it was indeed a quite meaningless step toward chaos; in general I treasure my own time, and as much as I detest losing it I also hate to cause others to waste theirs. But this possible feeling is trumped by the satisfaction for a valuable datum I collected with my experiment. It also feels good to observe that I exhibited good reflexes and smoothness of implementation. I suspect Joe will never realize I have been the voluntary source of his mishap today.
And there is also a bottom line to the story: be kind with people around you even if they are disappearing from your horizon in no time; as if you do not, there is always a chance that you'll get punished somehow. That applied to Joe the other day, but not to me - at least until he reads these lines and decides to key my car in retaliation.